I do not believe it is possible to write about gender without criticism. That means that your gender-equal society is not everyone’s gender-equal society, and you are almost certain to have readers react badly to it and notice biases that you did not even realize were there. The same thing happens with depictions of race in fantasy, and culture, and sexual orientation, and (though perhaps less explosively) with class and nationality.
Is this preventable? Absolutely not.
This is because, again, I don’t think an author can control a reader’s reactions to what she writes. The only things she can control are her own writing and her own reaction to criticism. Thus, trying to be honest as possible and interrogating her own biases and beliefs about gender is commendable. Sifting through critiques and taking the ones that seem insightful or useful into account is commendable, as is being able to explain one’s reasoning. Writing perfectly is impossible, and trying to explain away every single critique—as opposed to explain—is useless. Flying off the handle just makes people more inclined to laugh.
If you put a story out there that does its very best to talk seriously about equality of the genders, it enters a conversation, not a void. The desire to silence criticism and declare that you are Enlightened and Above It All is silly. After all, if you want to continue writing stories about gender, you can take the valid critiques and do it even better next time.
Thus, what I propose here is a set of techniques, and they won’t and can’t escape criticism in and of themselves. They won’t all be useful; in particular, they won’t all be useful in combination. My gender-equal society is not yours, after all. But they may be useful if taken and twisted, or in the sense of sparking new ideas, even more than in and of themselves.
1) Know thyself. This is where interrogating your own beliefs and biases about gender comes in. It’s easy to decide that you’ll write in a world where the genders are equal to avoid clichés like the heroine being a frail, mopey, weepy reward for the hero, whom her boyfriend rescues at the end of the story. And then all the women “just happen” to take care of the home and the children, and all the men “just happen” to be the rulers, the soldiers, and the politicians. Rhetoric in a story means very little if there is a huge lump of background evidence looming to show that, well, yeah, the author has not thought this through so very much.
So how can you interrogate them?
-Think, honestly, about what you do believe. Writing the beliefs out consciously could be a good start.
-Read other writing you’ve done, looking specifically for comments you’ve made in-story on gender, or how the gender of the characters matters to what they do.
-Think about why you want to have a gender-equal society. What will it add to the story? If you can know the reasons for your own writing about this particular theme, it might help you to know why you write the way you do about other themes, too.
-Track the sources of your biases. If it’s a particular belief set you’ve ceased to think is valid, that might make throwing the legacy of it out the window easier.
-Visualize characters. What image comes to mind when you hear the terms “nurse,” “general,” “mother,” “spouse,” “bishop,” “frail,” “handsome,” “happy,” “contented,” “useful”? (This can be useful in other particulars, too. A mental image of a mother as female might be shrug-worthy, but if you’re always visualizing a mother with hair-curlers and a pinched mouth, why is that? It can also work with characters of different race; many Western people tend to visualize them automatically as white).
-Accept that there are biases you won’t be able to change. Then you can work around or with them instead of denying they exist.
…Sorry, I think that part was the freshman composition teacher in me coming out.
2) What are the sexes’ relationships to nature and culture? The neat thing about anthropological theories when applied to fantasy is that they do not have to be true to give you an interesting jumping-off point.
The commentary I’ve most recently read about this (that is, the most recent commentary that was new to me) was an essay by anthropologist Sherry Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” She complicates the idea that the equation is as simple as male-culture being above female-nature by pointing out that women are obviously human, too, so it’s often philosophically impossible to assign them the exact same status as animals, plants, and rocks. So, in her theory, women occupy an uneasy position between the male—who supposedly transcends his body and is wholly free of its influence—and nature itself. Women are assigned some cultural duties, such as teaching children and cooking, but these are often low-status; Ortner uses the example of nearly all kindergarten teachers being female and nearly all university professors being male, as well as women cooking at home versus the high-paid male chefs. If a cultural activity can be moved out of the house and made into an “art,” suddenly it’s much better for men to practice it than women. Women are tied to nature in ways that men aren’t—giving birth is the example Ortner uses here—and thus “pulled back down” into their bodies, seen as more immanent than transcendent. Rhetoric employed to convince women that they do have power in these areas is usually aimed at preventing women from achieving high status and may serve other evil ends, such as the British Victorian rhetoric that Englishwomen really ruled the Empire by staying home and teaching their sons morals. This just happened, by fortunate coincidence surely (here is the dripping sarcasm bit if you missed it), to serve the ends of imperialism as well as maintaining gender status.
Does this theory have problems? Obviously. Societies who do assign women the exact same status as rocks, animals, and plants, or who have a high proportion of women and men sharing the same duties, would both violate it, and such societies have existed (though perhaps not always as easily as they appear to; see point 5). But it could be a really interesting spin to building a gender-equal society from the ground up. What is your society’s attitude towards nature and culture? How does it separate them? What cultural duties are accorded high status? What “natural” duties are, if any? A move towards a gender-equal society might be to place both men and women in between the two poles, or both close to culture, or both close to nature.
3) Don’t neglect the domestic. Here I go again. I mentioned the attitude that home and family are somehow “boring” in the last rant. And, sure enough, a few people commented that they were, and that fantasy has better things to do with its time.
Ursula K. LeGuin, who wrote The Left Hand of Darkness in an attempt to see what life might be like for a society whose members were neuter most of the time and became male or female only for reproductive purposes, says in an essay about the book, “Is Gender Necessary?”, that her neuter protagonist spends very little time with his/her children, or in any kind of domestic situation. Instead, activities that you could call “male” dominate the novel. LeGuin doesn’t regret that so much as wish that she’d shown more scenes of roles that could be called “female,” so that Estraven seems more manwoman than man.
Thus, devaluing the domestic context, leaving it out of the novel altogether, or having women and men speak scornfully of raising children, cooking, cleaning, and so on is, well, unfortunate. It might still be a gender-equal society on the surface—but it becomes so by valuing one set of roles over the other. It’s a gender-equal masculine society, and it once again says that it’s men who shape the world, and women should wish to join them, rather than having both sexes share equally in all roles in life. Except that, if everyone does that, who’s raising and teaching the children?
Is it possible to say that you’re only interested in writing about activities outside the domestic context? Sure. But that’s another one of those interesting coincidences just like the one that says people “naturally” prefer to read about male characters, and perhaps unquestioned bias at work. You can’t know if it is until or unless you think about it.
4) Realize that cultural attitudes are not immutable. Really, a lot of the ones we have today are the nineteenth century’s fault.
The division of sexual orientation into heterosexuality and homosexuality is only 100 to 150 years old, as are a lot of the stereotypes. Yes, the stigmatism of behavior, such as sodomy, existed before that, but there were plenty of other ways of talking about it. For example, in the case of a male servant in an upper-class house, the male employer might decide to have sex with him, and still have sex with his wife, and that could easily be a privilege of power, not “bisexuality.” Or a man and woman might marry only for political or economic reasons and have same-sex affairs on the side, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean they were “homosexual.” Since so many people in earlier centuries spent the majority of their time in the company of their own sex, the same-sex affairs would have been easier to hide, and didn’t have that ultimate “oops” revelation of infidelity, pregnancy. Victorian sexologists started classifying sexuality by gender of both giver and receiver of affection, and then came the trial of Oscar Wilde in the 1890’s, and then here comes Freud, and what you have is a new consciousness of sexuality.
Can you still deal with sexual orientation in your story? Absolutely. But do you have to deal with it? No. The modern primacy of straight/bisexual/gay has not been universal for all times, all cultures, and all places.
Nor has the concept of separate spheres been around forever. Once again, the nineteenth century gave it its biggest push, especially with concepts like “the angel in the house,” popularized by Coventry Patmore; the proliferation of “conduct books” intended to instruct good young ladies how to behave like good young ladies; the equal proliferation of negative stereotypes like “fallen woman” that happened when women broke the rules (the depiction of prostitutes in many fantasy novels is stride for stride with their depiction in many Victorian novels); and the development of a middle-class lifestyle where more and more people could have families where the women didn’t have to go out to work. (The idea that women should stay at home has never held with the same force among the oppressed. Victorian working-class women did earn money in factories and have jobs like dressmaking. Female slaves in the American south worked in the fields. Just because the Victorian middle class liked to think of itself as the whole of the world does not mean it was).
So don’t feel compelled to have your female characters making remarks about how they have special permission to do “manly” activities, or that they’ll spend the next decade sitting at home and being bored out of their skulls. Here, it may never have applied.
5) Yes, let’s talk about power. Another too-easy way to make a gender-equal society is to insist that women are equal to men because there are a few women in high offices, or because women “rule behind the scenes” and secretly tell men what to do. (This is me staring at Robert Jordan). Excuse me. If they’re really, completely, totally equal, why would they need to hide their power?
Likewise, take a very hard look at those offices the women occupy. Lots of times, they’re ceremonial. Okay, so the chief needs the blessing of the women of the tribe before he goes out and fights. But does he actually send out the diplomats or surrender to the enemy if they refuse? How much of the blessing is literal, powerful, magical, religious, a force of will, and how much is symbolic, a set of empty gestures? Once again, there’s an unfortunate coincidence of granting women “power” that keeps them out of the field of battle and out of the decision-making.
Likewise, the most powerful officer in your army may be a woman, but if all the lieutenants and drill sergeants are male and all the other women are clustered at the bottom of the ranks…yeah. And does this powerful woman officer actually make decisions and lead, or is that left up to the men who surround her?
How much does the queen get to rule? How much do people listen to the woman who doesn’t fight because “that’s just not her way”? How much does the priestess control the future and influence people, and how much does she play symbolic roles and stand around sadly shaking her head because “the Goddess will not let me interfere with the world”? (This is me staring at The Mists of Avalon. I would like to read about a truly respected priestess, actually). How much is the female healer up to her arms in blood and guts, and how often does she just lay her hands on the victim and mutter a pretty little prayer? How much does she work, even if it’s stereotypically “female” work like sewing, and how much of what she does is pure entertainment, relaxation, because she doesn’t need to worry her pretty little head about a thing?
I’ve read a few stories that kept men out of the army because they were too “violent,” and had women as soldiers because they were “gentle.” This is me putting my head in my hands. Come to think of it, it’s hard to remember a story like that where the female soldiers fought, as opposed to made arrests and got drunk and told naughty jokes to show how liberated they were.
I don’t know one way to get around all of this. The ground I’d personally choose to start on is that of voluntary limitation, where people don’t take all they could or hold some of their power back because they want other people to have some power, some material, some freedom. If both sexes practiced that, with the amount of limitation varying depending on individual, or class, or other factors, then the power and influence might cease to settle on males alone in those fortunate coincidences.
6) There are other ways of dealing with children. There seems to be an idea, sometimes, that you’d better limit female characters in fantasy from having children, because otherwise they’ll be forced to settle down and raise the kids.
In a gender-equal society? Really?
If they’re high-class, they might have them raised by nurses and servants, which tended to happen an awful lot in our world. If they’re busy, the father might take care of the kid, while if the woman has a second kid in a less busy period, she might do the lion’s share of raising it. If the period of childhood is very short in this culture and children are seen as miniature adults, the child could be riding along with the mother as soon as she was strong enough to move from bed and sharing her duties as soon as it was a few years old. If they live with goats or cows or a dog bitch who’s nursing, the child might feed there instead of from its mother. If the society’s less fast-paced or more home-oriented, the idea of children as “a hindrance” might not even exist. (This is where fantasy could benefit from not insisting that only stories where people ride about and fight with the speed of comets are interesting).
If the child’s sickly, it could die. If the heroine doesn’t want a baby, she could use natural spermicides—they don’t have to be magical—or abort it. In a gender-equal society, abortion might very well not be the big-ass deal they are here. (Is that raising a hot-button issue for your audience again? You betcha. But that’s the point of speaking into a conversation again, and learning to sift the criticism that comes. You can’t take a position where no one can criticize you, and why the hell would you want to?)
Consider the culture’s attitudes towards children in more than the light of, “Children= no story.” That’s not inherently true.
7) Gender-equal societies don’t have to be utopian. After all, maybe the genders are equal, but their class structure is horrific. Or their theology strangles them. Or they’re supremely racist.
I’ve heard a few complaints that making men and women equal is “too perfect.” Not if that’s the only or most prominent kind of equality. Men and women being equal does not guarantee equality everywhere.
8) Pay attention to the small ways that people are equal, too. This is why I don’t buy the female soldiers who make randy jokes about men, while the men meekly sit home and don’t dare to raise their voices against women, as being part of a gender-equal society. Equality depends on more than conscious rhetoric. That’s why people can say they’re not sexist and yet display casual sexism on a daily basis, such as automatically assuming that a woman who’s angry is on her period. The perception of people as part of their sex, or gender, and not as individuals still exists.
So look at things like the following, as well as writing grand, high-flown speeches about how no woman in this society bows and scrapes to a man, and none wears dresses:
-Who has power to speak, when, and where.
-How many degrading terms exist for each sex (even some of the “male” ones in English, like “son-of-a-bitch,” still refer the man’s angry attitude to the female).
-The existence of stereotypes that tie all good character traits to one set of genitals and all the bad ones to another.
-How much labor people are expected to perform.
-Disease classification (hysteria literally derives its name from the womb and was/is considered a predominately female affliction, while Victorian women went to bed of “the vapours,” and even if a man displays the exact same symptoms as a woman with PMS, no one claims he has PMS).
-Purity and taboos (if something is considered unclean because a menstruating woman touches it…)
Making characters consider themselves as equal on the daily, unconscious level is more challenging than having them philosophize about it.
I’m sure there are some I’ve forgotten, and I’m sure I have biases showing through here I’m not aware of. I hope some of these are still useful, given that.